B-Movie producer Roger Corman has long had a reputation in the film industry for latching onto a trend and being able get films made in unbelievably short periods of time in order to cash in. He was never known to miss an opportunity – famously, the original Little Shop of Horrors was an attempt to make use of the last few days of a studio set before it was torn down; it was shot in less than three days – and Galaxy of Terror seems to be an attempt at capturing some of the sci-fi horror audience that lapped up Alien in 1979.
Though often dismissed as being a clone of Alien, the film does attempt to set itself apart from Ridley Scott’s lavishly shot, peerlessly designed haunted-house-in-space classic. The basic set up sees an age-diverse crew (featuring a young, pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund and a mostly mute Sid Haig) dispatched to the planet Morganthus – by a being known as the Planet Master – in order to respond to a distress signal. One by one, the crew fall prey to whatever it is that’s hiding in the planet’s ancient temples – will any of them survive to discover what’s really going on?
Something else Corman is known for is his hiring of talented craftsmen that would provide his cheap quickies with impressive production design given the limitations they faced – and Galaxy of Terror is no exception. James Cameron – who went on to basically conquer cinema with his mammoth studio productions – was the Production Designer and Second Unit Director on Galaxy of Terror, and it shows. Though clearly a cheap production, the costume and set design is actually really impressive, with some really cool practical effects – in particular, the alien temple and other landscape model work genuinely looks great. As with Alien, there’s a real physical, industrial and functional feel to the ship and many of the environments.
There’s some very gross gore, though not all of it is effective – especially as it’s all so in-your-face and explicit to appeal to the bloodthirsty audience the film would have been aimed at – but when it works, it works really well. The film definitely shares some DNA in its design and visuals with films like Terminator and Aliens, though both of those films are an awful lot more competently and carefully made than the end result of Galaxy of Terror – which is surely not surprising.
Sadly, despite the impressive production that punches way above its weight, the film’s content is all over the place. Even though the setup is pretty straightforward, the storytelling is oddly garbled and the characters are woefully thin, to the extent that what happens to each of them – which, spoiler here, is supposed to be tied into their fears – never really feels anything more than random, nasty attacks that occur with no rhyme or reason.
And they get truly nasty in one scene, with a vile, prolonged sexual assault involving an alien creature that’s clearly meant to titillate. It’s truly repellent – and, given the unconvincing nature of the creature involved, would be amusing if the intent wasn’t so exploitative. Learning why the scene exists in it’s current form doesn’t make it any better. Corman promised the financial backers of the film a sex scene featuring one of the cast – specifically actress Taaffe O’Connell. Despite objections from Bruce D. Clark, the film’s director, as well as O’Connell herself, Corman himself then rewrote and shot the scene with a body double (though O’Connell does appear in the scene in the finished film). It’s grim and sleazy, far nastier than the sillier, albeit still gross, death scenes featuring the other crewmembers.
Beyond that low point for the film, the resolution and explanation for the events comes out of nowhere too, with an inexplicable display of acrobatics from one of the crew that makes the climax truly laughable. There’s the germ of a clever premise in Galaxy of Terror, but it’s all told at such a pace and with so little clarity that it never really comes together in the end.
As a showcase for the cinematic talents of people such as James Cameron, Galaxy of Terror is a fascinating glimpse at how his craft developed, though the exploitative nature of the film and its poor development of what should be quite an interesting concept makes it one that’s not worth sitting through – despite its slender running time, it still feels like an overlong, punishingly grim slog.
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